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Another one bites the dust
Maury's Deli isn't the first, won't be the last
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Sometimes as a writer you’ll just be going about your day and the universe will hand you a perfectly gift-wrapped little moment and it’s like poetry happening right there in front of you. It was like that the other day when I walked into Maury’s Deli, the 74-year-old South Worcester staple set to close this week due to a 50 percent rent increase, to find a regular customer chatting with the women behind the counter.
He wore work boots and paint-splattered basketball shorts and he had sunglasses up on head and skin with the sort of look like he’d been in the sun all day. He talked to the women with the ease of a longtime regular, an interaction familiar to me from back in my days at the pizza shop. Someone you see all the time and they might not know your name and you might not know theirs but you’ve got a little relationship going and you talk about the weather and whatever else and it helps pass the time. I could tell just by looking at him and the way he carried himself that that guy goes to Maury’s once a week at least and he’s been doing it for a long time.
“It’s over, after all these years,” he said and the women behind the counter nodded quietly. I’m sure that’s at least the 17th time that day they’d had that same conversation. I distinctly remember one of the women looking at him with the sort of look that maybe only a working class Massachusetts woman can give. It’s the kind of look that says yeah shit sucks but what are you going to do about it and she didn’t have to say anything it was all right there lined into her face.
“I’d take this over the baseball stadium all day,” he said. “I mean hell I go to one ball game a year. I come here all the time. And now these ladies are out of work.”
It’s just me and this guy and the women behind the counter and an older woman sitting on one of the maroon leather stools lining the long faux-wood grain bar that separates the kitchen from the dining room. It’s quiet in there and the air is so still that advertisements for specials written with sharpie on thin deli paper hang motionless from the handwritten menu board.
“Thursday special steak pepper and onion $9.49”
“Maury’s burgers prepped fresh every Monday and Friday :-)”
A painted sign by the register reads “A Maury’s sandwich is not complete without a half sour pickle.”
Maury’s is a place that is so iconic and integral to the urban fabric of Worcester. Like Coney Island Hot Dogs, it possesses an old-school working class character like decades passed it by without it noticing or adapting at all and it never had to because people in the neighborhood, well, that’s just where they’re going to get their sandwiches and that is the end of that. You go to Maury’s. That’s what you do. Why bother changing? Maury’s is an example of what makes Worcester such a great city to live in, how in this weird little political backwater in Massachusetts you can have a deli that looks like it’s straight out of a 70s mafia movie - like there’s a crooked cop and a made man in there at a booth and one of them is sliding the other some cash slipped into a newspaper.
Like that guy in front of me in line said, I’d take this place over the ballpark any day.
When it comes to Worcester’s strengths as a city, it’s in places like this and in its dive bars and in its family takeout restaurants of any conceivable ethnic variety and its music and arts scene nurtured by the availability of warehouse space. The city’s urban character, with so much charm smartly hidden behind its dusty, downtrodden veneer, is born of an economic circumstance in which regular working people can afford to take a gamble on a storefront or make rent off a part-time service job which affords them the time and freedom to pursue an artistic venture.
City Hall hates this character. It wants it destroyed. It markets its destruction as progress.
Maury’s is going out of business because when it came time to renew the lease recently the landlord decided to increase the rent by 50 percent. The landlord is well within his rights to do that because why wouldn’t you? Property values are spiking out of control and no one in government—not at City Hall or the Statehouse or over in Washington—cares very much at all what that means for a city like Worcester and its neighborhoods and its urban character and all the things about cities which make cities a good place to live. Worcester has recently become a good place to park your capital for fast returns but ask yourself has it gotten all that much better to live in really? A couple cute little attractions downtown does not make up for an increasingly untenable situation for the majority of the city’s residents. But it’s the people looking for those returns that the government caters to. Not you or me. To the folks over in City Hall a place like Maury’s closing is unfortunate collateral damage but it’s the price we have to pay to put the city On The Map. Who’s map? Not yours. Not anyone who enjoyed getting sandwiches at Maury’s. Not anyone who worked there. Not anyone who lives in that neighborhood or owns a business in that neighborhood. This map is a map for people who treat our city like a little stock market and they don’t care about you at all unless you’re getting in the way.
I’d trade the ballpark for this place any day the guy says.
Figure while I’m there I should sit down a while and have a sandwich and soak the place in. But before I do I follow that guy out to the parking lot and I do that awkward thing reporters have to do they go ummmmmm excuse me sir can I ask you a question? Like I’m about to hand him a church pamphlet or sell him on some skinny tea. And luckily he’s friendly. A lot of the time people aren’t and they go fuck you buddy and you can’t really blame them. I talk to him and his wife out by their pickup truck. His name is Scott Chevalier and her name is Samantha and they own their own home improvement business S&S Home Improvement
“We’ve been coming here for the last like 30 years and we love this place. And we love Polar Park but we’d give up the baseball team for this place any day. This has just been a staple for us. It’s very sad,” says Scott. “It’s simple as just the landlord is raising the rent. Maybe we get all the customers together, maybe we get all the customers together and raise some money?”
And that’s a good idea. That sure would be nice. But it seems that short of a benevolent buyer swooping in, the deli will close this Saturday. The property is assessed at $351,000, per Worcester property records. The building was last sold in 2014 to Sanat Patel and SPH Realty as co-owners for $500,000. I know it’s not the building for sale it’s the business. But consider the rent if back in 2014 this building was already selling for $150,000 over its assessed value.
“It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart,” says Chevalier. “These people remind me of us. When we were starting our business out we struggled and people helped us. I don’t know if it’s the park putting them out but it’s like, everything is going up and up.”
Samantha chimes in: “And no one’s getting the annual pay raises, you know, to live.”
“We’re sad,” Scott says. “We’re sad for the small guys like us.”
I’m sad too, guys.
I went back in and got something to eat and that steak and cheese sandwich special on the deli paper caught my eye. It was really good. Sat there at the counter eating and I asked the women behind the counter if they’d like to talk to me for my story and they said no, better not. You can call the owner his number is on the for sale sign out front, one of them told me.
So I did and he seemed a little uneasy talking to me not knowing what my publication was all about, but he did say before we started any formal interview that there’s some interest in buying the business and that the landlord might be a barrier to that. A post on the Facebook group Worcester Eats is the biggest public statement made on the issue, and it was met with hundreds of sympathetic comments—reminiscences and “NOOOOOOS” and “surely something can be done.”
Something could be done if there’s a will to do it. City Hall could do a lot more to support small businesses than it’s doing. A 50 percent rent increase sprung on a local business, and a landmark one at that, should be of more concern to City Hall.
The ladies working the sandwich counter declined an interview but we just chatted for a while and they were lamenting having to close but they were taking it on the chin. If I was looking for big dramatic statements I was looking in the wrong place.
“Well when it comes time to renew the lease they can up it however you want” one of them said at one point.
She’s right, of course, and the fact she’s right is such an indictment of the way we do things around here.
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Tried a new thing last night with the wise-a-guys over at WOOtenanny. We went on Twitch to do Mystery Science Theater 3000 but for Worcester City Council and it was a ton of fun. We had people watching and commenting funny comments and asking good questions and I think it was an illuminating and entertaining experience. We’re going to make it a regular thing for sure.
We’re going to do it on their Twitch channel. If you’re unfamiliar with the platform all you gotta do is smash the link when we’re live, but if you download the Twitch app it’s a better watching experience.
The City Council last night was a clusterfuck to be honest with you but it was very illustrative of the political dynamics and trappings of the council. I’m saving my observations for the next issue of my Idiot’s Guide to City Elections which you’ll get on Friday if you play your cards right!
Read the first issue here below. It’s on the concrete reasons there are for voting despite the many valid reasons why it seems a useless exercise.
A couple weeks ago I met with a very bright sociology student at Clark who wanted to interview me on my career for a class project that required some interviewing. We talked for an hour or so about all sorts of stuff but the main focuses were the notion of “objectivity” and the trappings of city government as it is currently oriented. We talked about why no one cares about city politics and talked especially about why college students don’t care and are for the most part oblivious to the city. She had to write about the conversation as part of the assignment and she shared it with me. Below is a passage from her essay (with her permission of course) that I particularly enjoyed.
When we talked about the limitations of the expectation of objectivity, I was reminded a lot of our conversation in class the other day about Bell’s piece on the importance of rejecting notions of “objectivity” in the social sciences. I think that in academia, as in the kind ofindependent journalism that Shaner does, if we really want to move forward towards a sustainable future we need to acknowledge different sources of knowledge as valid and valuable--whether that’s personal knowledge, cultural knowledge, or something similar--and acknowledge that all knowledge is biased in some way. And I want to emphasize the “sustainable” part of that statement here, because I think that the only way we can mitigate climate change is if we embrace knowledge that comes not just from Western “objective” scientists, but also from different sources, especially from Indigenous cultures. Furthermore, I think that local journalism can serve a very critical role in deconstructing our present hierarchy of knowledge, especially in regards to knowledge about the environment. Local journalists like Shaner know the people and the spaces that they’re writing about better than anyone at the New York Times or CNN ever could, and that’s because they spend their days as Shaner does: on the ground talking to people, attending local government meetings, and writing about it all. And, as Shaner does, independent local journalists can incorporate the real, lived experiences of individuals in their work, to shed light upon the actual felt effects of environmental changes (be it development issues, climate change impacts, etc). Through this kind of work, I think that local journalism can play a very critical role in our fight to mitigate climate change because it can be used to empower communities to realize the power they can have through participating in local politics to alleviate climate change within their areas.
Great stuff! Watch out for Grace Dowling everyone! Anyone her age who can talk about Naomi Klein with the fluency she did is going places in the critical thinking department.
Lastly, can I get a big “hell yeah” in the chat for this?
If you’re wondering why there’s a Columbus statue in Worcester and how it’s still standing, I wrote about it last year, when this same exact thing happened.
Ok bye bye